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Beyond Economic Development: Can the Arts Lead Communities Out of Poverty?

John Delconte[1]

Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amherst, Massachusetts, USA

Rural America has undergone major economic challenges in the past several decades. Industrial jobs have been disappearing as factories seek cheaper labour overseas and automation increases. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing employment in the US has dropped from 19.6 million in 1979 to 13.7 million in 2007 (Pierce and Schott, 2012). Family farms have been closing down - one in three Americans lived on a family farm in 1900, but the percentage had dropped to under 2% by 2000 (Lobao and Meyer, 2001). As buildings that once produced textiles, tobacco and any number of goods lay shuttered, sometimes for decades, and as farmlands are sold off, residents look upon the built landscape as a reminder that the old way of life has passed. Meanwhile, political polarization grows as a consequence of the loss in manufacturing jobs to overseas (Autor et al., 2016), and there has been a corresponding increase in middle aged white mortality due to suicide and drug overdose (Case and Deaton, 2015). The buildings, open farmlands and people need reinvention.

Poverty continues to be a significant issue throughout the US, but particularly in rural areas. The US Census Bureau cites the poverty level for an individual in 2014 as $12,071 (US Census Bureau, 2016). In 2014, 46.7 million were living in poverty, or 14.8% of the total population. This was 2.3% higher than 2007 levels, which was before the most recent recession. A total of 8.2 million people live outside of metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs)1, and a higher proportion of them are poor (16.5% versus 14.5% within MSAs). Poverty is a multidimensional problem that can be self-perpetuating, with factors relating to substandard housing, health problems, increased crime and dropout rates, and employment dislocations (USDA, 2016).

The notion of investing in arts and culture as an economic development strategy began in the early 20th century (Ashley, 2015). The New England Council has been a leader in recasting the arts as a business cluster, similar to the way we look at technology or finance. In their seminal report prepared with Mt. Auburn Associates (NEC, 2000), they state how the arts and other cultural activities have always been integral to New England, and are necessary for the economic health of the region. This was the beginning of a movement across the country towards what is now known as the creative economy. This idea received a boost with Richard Florida’s publication The Rise of the Creative Class (2002), which argued that having cultural things to do in a city was a way of attracting creative people, which in turn was attractive to technological and cutting edge businesses. Researchers and policy makers became convinced that the cultural sector stimulates the economic sector. However, economic gains do not necessarily translate to a reduction in poverty. This exploratory study was undertaken to gain a better understanding of the relationship of the arts to poverty alleviation. The results from this study suggest that the arts can play a role in what Baum (1997) referred to as ‘the organization of hope’ for distressed communities.

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